NCAA announces upcoming basketball tournaments will be played without fans in attendance

photo by: Associated Press

Spectators watch from the stands during the first half of a First Four game of the NCAA college basketball tournament between Temple and Belmont, Tuesday, March 19, 2019, in Dayton, Ohio. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

Story updated at 4:47 p.m. Wednesday

NCAA tournament games will not be open to the general public because of concerns about the spread of coronavirus.

NCAA President Mark Emmert said Wednesday that he made the decision to conduct both the men’s and women’s tournaments, which begin next week, with only essential staff and limited family in attendance. The decision comes after the NCAA’s COVID-19 advisory panel of medical experts recommended against playing sporting events open to the general public.

Emmert told The Associated Press that canceling the tournament was considered.

“The decision was based on a combination of the information provided by national and state officials, by the advisory team that we put together of medical experts from across the country, and looking at what was going to be in the best interest of our student-athletes, of course,” Emmert told the AP in an phone interview. “But also the public health implications of all of this. We recognize our tournaments bring people from all around the country together. They’re not just regional events. They’re big national events. It’s a very, very hard decision for all the obvious reasons.”

Emmert said the NCAA wants to move the men’s Final Four from Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium to a smaller arena in the area. The NCAA also will consider using smaller venues for regional sites currently set to be played at the Toyota Center in Houston, Madison Square Garden in New York, Staples Center in Los Angeles and Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.

“We have to determine the availability of the sites, obviously, but it doesn’t make good sense to have a football stadium be empty,” Emmert said.

All sites for next week’s men’s games will remain the same unless conditions in those areas force relocation, Emmert said.

First- and second-round sites for the women’s tournament will become official next week. Those games are usually played at or near the campuses of the highly seeded teams.

“It’s really sad. Obviously it’s disappointing for all our fans,” said Louisville women’s coach Jeff Walz, whose team is ranked No. 6 in the latest AP poll. “At the same time I completely understand for the health and safety of the fans and student-athletes and everyone involved.”

Walz said the university already had sold more than 4,000 tickets for the first- and second-round sessions.

The decision applies to more than just men’s and women’s basketball. All NCAA-sponsored championships, including hockey’s Frozen Four, will be affected.

But the men’s basketball tournament is the crown jewel, one of the most popular events on the American sports calendar. March Madness draws hundreds of thousands of fans to arenas from coast to coast. The men’s tournament generated more than $900 million in revenue last year for the NCAA and its members, though the majority of that was from a media rights deal with CBS and Turner that pays about $800 billion per year.

Emmert said CBS and Turner plan to broadcast the games as usual. Other media members will be allowed into the arenas to cover the games, but how many is still being determined, he said.

Emmert said a protocol for the medical screening of people entering the arenas is still being worked out, along with what constitutes essential staff and how to define family members.

The 68-team field for the men’s basketball tournament is scheduled to be announced Sunday, and the 64-team women’s tournament field is to be unveiled Monday. Games begin Tuesday and Wednesday on the men’s side in Dayton, Ohio, where earlier in the day the governor said he would issue an order to restrict spectator access to indoor sporting events.

The Mid-American Conference on Tuesday announced it was closing its men’s and women’s basketball tournament games at Cleveland’s Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse, home of the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers and scheduled site of the men’s NCAA games, to the general public. The women’s tournament started Wednesday.

The Big West Conference announced a similar move, not allowing the general public into its basketball tournament games to be played this week at the Honda Center in Anaheim, California.

Emmert said it would be up to conference officials and their members to decide how they wanted to proceed with their tournaments for the rest of the week. One by one, the power conferences playing in large venues followed the NCAA’s lead.

The Atlantic Coast Conference, Big Ten and Big 12 announced they would not allow the general public to attend their men’s basketball tournaments for the rest of the week. All started Wednesday with fans in attendance. The Big Ten is playing at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, and when an announcement was made about limiting fan access going forward, fans booed.

The Pac-12 played the first games of its tournament in Las Vegas on Wednesday, and the Southeastern Conference tournament started in Nashville, Tenn. The Big East began play Wednesday night at Madison Square Garden in New York.

There were no immediate plans to limit access to those tournaments.

March Madness hits another level next week with the start of the NCAA Tournament.

There are eight sites for the first and second rounds of the men’s tournament, scheduled to be played March 19-22. Locations include Cleveland; Spokane, Wash.; Albany, N.Y.; Sacramento, Calif.; and Omaha, Neb. The four regional sites for the second weekend of the tournament are Indianapolis, Los Angeles, Houston and New York. The Final Four is in Atlanta, with the semifinals on April 4 and the championship game April 6.

The women’s tournament’s first- and second-round games begin March 21 and will be played at 16 sites. The regionals will be played in Greenville, S.C.; Dallas; Portland, Ore.; and Fort Wayne, Ind. The Final Four will be held in New Orleans on April 3 and 5.


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